Head Start: an expensive program with few short term results but great long term results

During the current government shutdown of 2013, one of the programs that is currently stopped is the early childhood education program started 50 years ago called Head Start. Originally, it was believed that earlier education would improve the IQ of those children who participated. This did not happen. In fact, not much happens. The Department of Health and Human Services itself found very little difference between third graders who were or were not in Head Start when they were three and four year olds. This finding is trumpeted by conservative essayists at places like the Heritage Foundation. However, when the subjects are revisited every 10 years for 30 years, a different story emerges. While Head Start cannot increase a child's IQ, it can introduce the practice of self-control, something not every child is born with yet every child can learn. Here is a big quote from the previously linked article.
Surprisingly — or perhaps not, if you think about it — the study found that the ability to exercise good self-control had a much greater effect on success later in life than did academic test scores or parental income. How was success defined? The researchers looked at the child’s situation in adulthood — income, credit ratings, tangles with the law, drug abuse problems and physical health — all factors where real-world numbers tell the tale. The conclusion: The better a very young child can exercise self-control, the more successful that child will be as an adult. The research shows that this is true even for children in wealthy families. The benefit goes to kids whose parents are poor role models themselves. The researchers who discovered this found that when a 3- or 4-year-old learns either at home or in a pre-kindergarten program to share, to take turns and to wait patiently for things to happen, that ability sticks with them through the rest of their lives. You can learn that in a well-parented home, but not so easily from parents who themselves never learned self-control. This turns out to be a big factor in the poverty cycle.
It looks like a big investment in the beginning of a generation has a big payoff when that generation enters adulthood. There are several studies in multiple countries arriving at the same conclusion.Here is one,
Childhood self-control and adult outcomes: results from a 30-year longitudinal study.
Here is another,
A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety
Here is another popular treatment at Time magazine. The Secrets of Self-Control: The Marshmallow Test 40 Years Later
Read more about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment.
For what it's worth, religious upbringing does not guarantee reduced impulsivity, which might explain why wild and reckless children of pastor's is such a stereotype.

I write all this in light of the foolish libertarian Ayn Randian questions about whether our government should be involved in social issues, like alleviating poverty. Since the moral argument holds no weight for the Fox News loving Randian, I'm presenting the benefit in economic terms. A member of society who is not in jail, and has learned self control and delayed gratification is a member who can contribute to, participate in, and give increase to society. Not all children are in families that can teach essential skills to prosper. Children born in privileged families have the fiscal resources to recover from mistakes that would socially impair those in poverty. A little help from successful taxpayers can prevent the proliferation of prisons and prison populations which are a drain on society, especially America's, who has the largest prison population in the world.

Head Start enables us to be better. Defunding programs like this is a short sighted political move.

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Luke Holzmann said…
Great point, John, about how we should be considering the long-term benefits of these programs. My wife and I got to talking about preschool a while back. I had read articles that said some preschools actually stunt later educational gains. I shared me thoughts on how that all connects in a blog post about preschool.

Short-sighted political moves have been frustrating me for a long, long time [smile].

John Umland said…
Thanks for the feedback Luke. "Soft skills" seem to be the key to long term success.
God is love

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